hits-and-misses:-city-almost-out-of-sight?

Hits and misses: City almost out of sight?

City now over the hill in title race?

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Manchester City’s win against Brentford in the Premier League.

The gap now is eight.

The Manchester City fans who danced their way towards the exits at the Brentford Community Stadium and into the night might well have made the short strip onto the King’s Road to raise a glass to Brighton.

Their point at Stamford Bridge means a once three-horse race is looking like resulting in an all-too-familiar ending with light blue ribbons on the Premier League trophy.

This felt a significant week, with Liverpool slipping at Leicester and Chelsea’s refusal to return to their bristling best even with Romelu Lukaku back among the goals.

The title contenders are fine teams but are made to look like they have too many flaws, when up against this runaway City train. Here, they were at their ruthlessly efficient best, scoring through Phil Foden 56 seconds after Joao Cancelo had cleared the ball off his own goal line.

Guardiola knows his side had come through yet another stiff away test.

“I’m very proud of my players, as all the managers are making arguments about the schedule which we made one or two weeks ago, but we’re in a good run. We’re only at the end of December so there are many more games,” he said.

“We are eight points in front but there are 54 points still to play for. We needed this type of rhythm in order to win today.

“They’re an exceptional team and we’ve seen what they’ve done to others. If we attacked quicker, they could’ve caused us problems so it was the rhythm we needed today.”

‘Boring, boring City’ sang the Brentford fans as their opponents stroked the ball around in the closing stages. Boring, maybe. But given the Liverpool and Chelsea results over the past 24 hours or so, a win here was extremely valuable to City in the bigger scheme of things.

They roll on, perhaps over the hill now in the title race.

Ben Grounds

Chelsea’s creativity problem looks set to cost them the title

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A frustrated Thomas Tuchel says Chelsea would be ‘stupid’ to believe they can compete for the Premier League title due to Covid-enforced absences and injuries after a 1-1 draw against Brighton.

Chelsea were three points clear of Liverpool and four points ahead of Manchester City after 12 Premier League games at the end of November.

They now trail leaders City by eight points and are just one ahead of Liverpool having played a game more.

The west Londoners have gone from 15/8 shots with Sky Bet for the title all the way out to 16/1. And there won’t be many takers at that price considering City’s form, and Chelsea’s for that matter. Despite only losing their lead in stoppage time against Brighton, they were second best for large parts to a team who pressed efficiently, passed intelligently and looked more confident than their supposed title-challenging rivals.

Such is the relentless pace at the top of the Premier League, you simply can’t afford to go through a spell of winning just four out of 10 games as Chelsea have. In the blink of an eye, the title has slipped out of their grasp.

Sustaining attacks and creating quality chances is becoming a real problem for Thomas Tuchel, who cut a frustrated figure in his media duties after dropping yet more points. Their lack of sustained, quality attacks can be showcased through an expected goals figure of just 0.67 in the 1-1 draw.

Romelu Lukaku’s goal came from a set-piece, as did most of Chelsea’s chances. Remember this is a team that against Arsenal on the second week of the season created 18 chances from open play in one fixture. Such is their current malaise, they have created a total of 18 chances from open play in their last three fixtures combined against Brighton, Aston Villa and Wolves.

It was the same story in the 3-2 win over Leeds where two Jorginho penalties got them out of jail and papered over the cracks of their lack of cutting edge in the final third. This is now more than just a blip for Tuchel and Chelsea. They have questions to answer.

Lewis Jones

Brighton flourishing against the elite

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea’s draw with Brighton in the Premier League.

“I have not seen one team play a nice match against Brighton, so it was clear we would struggle,” Thomas Tuchel said, praising Brighton’s style after the 1-1 draw. Much like Jurgen Klopp did earlier this season and much like Pep Guardiola has done in the past.

When people like that are talking you up, it’s no wonder Graham Potter isn’t going to change his philosophy despite his team’s tendency not to get the results their performances merited.

That happened again in this match. Brighton deserved to win but Danny Welbeck’s equaliser was celebrated like a winner and you couldn’t keep the smile off Potter’s face at full-time.

As Tuchel, Klopp and Guardiola have noted, he deserves huge respect and praise for the job he is doing at Brighton and nights like the one at Stamford Bridge prove it.

Potter fills his players with such confidence in the most daunting of environments. Many players hide when faced with the challenge of playing at Anfield or Stamford Bridge. But Brighton’s passing is positive and their teamwork and unity with and without the ball is among the best of any team in the Premier League.

They are the only team, bar Chelsea and Manchester City, to come away with a result at Liverpool this season and their performance against Tuchel’s side was equally, if not more, impressive. They dominated all the key performance metrics, posting more possession, more shots (18), shots on target (6) and Potter’s side won the expected goals battle (0.67 vs 0.88).

It seems the bigger the occasion, the bigger the Brighton performance.

Lewis Jones

Salah has rare off-day as Liverpool stunned

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leicester’s win against Liverpool

Leicester had conceded 26 goals in their last nine games while Liverpool had scored at least once in their last 34.

So when Mohamed Salah stepped up to take an early penalty he himself had won, it seemed the script for a game which pitted the Premier League’s most prolific attack against one of its more porous – and injury-hit – defences was already written.

But Salah, the Premier League’s top scorer and a man who had converted his last 15 consecutive spot-kicks in the competition, instead saw his uncharacteristically tame effort repelled by Kasper Schmeichel before heading the rebound against the crossbar.

Leicester harnessed the power of that moment, holding firm against sustained Liverpool pressure before substitute Ademola Lookman’s second-half winner, while on the other side Salah wilted.

The Egyptian has been irrepressible all season but his penalty miss knocked him off his stride at the King Power Stadium. In the first half, sloppy touches crept into his game. In the second, there were over-hit passes and misdirected efforts on goal.

Salah, who will soon join up with his country for the African Cup of Nations, was not the only one to spurn opportunities. Sadio Mane missed a gilt-edged one-on-one chance. Diogo Jota headed wide when he should have hit the target. But it was Salah’s struggles that best summed up Liverpool’s night.

The defeat opens a significant gap between Jurgen Klopp’s side and Premier League leaders Manchester City, who had put six goals past the same opponent only 48 hours earlier at the Etihad Stadium.

It seemed Liverpool might rack up a similar total against Leicester’s makeshift defence when Salah started his run-up. At that moment, however, the script was torn up and a new one was written.

Nick Wright

Vlasic shows he can help West Ham

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from West Ham’s win at Watford

West Ham were already well on their way to victory when Nikola Vlasic added their fourth goal against Watford at Vicarage Road but the Hammers will hope it is a significant moment for him.

The Croatian international has made only a modest impact since his arrival at West Ham from CSKA Moscow in a deal worth £33.5m last summer but perhaps his first goal for the club is a signal of bigger things to come in the second half of the campaign.

Vlasic has had to be patient. The forward, who had a spell at Everton in 2017/18, has only made two Premier League starts for the Hammers so far but fans have been encouraged by what they have seen recently and he certainly made his mark at Vicarage Road, turning home Jarrod Bowen’s cut-back in stoppage time following his 85th-minute introduction.

Bowen’s sparkling form is one of the reasons why Vlasic has struggled to hold down a place in David Moyes’s starting line-up. But West Ham face a gruelling schedule as they juggle domestic and European commitments in the months ahead. Their squad depth will be tested.

Vlasic appears ready to step up. With a bedding-in period behind him and finally off the mark with his first goal, the 24-year-old could prove a difference-maker as West Ham aim to finish the season as strongly as they have started it.

Nick Wright

Spurs’ European exit could be blessing in disguise

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Southampton’s draw with Tottenham

The general consensus was that Antonio Conte had wasted little time in transforming Tottenham, and at St Mary’s he extended his unbeaten start to his latest role to seven league games, becoming the first Spurs manager ever to achieve that feat.

But it was also wondered how Spurs would look in the Premier League away from home under the Italian given that a quirk of their recent spate of three postponed matches due to Covid cases had wiped out their last three road trips.

A total of 51 days separated this visit to the south coast with their last domestic jaunt on November 7 at Everton, and there was a sluggishness to their play as they deservedly fell behind to James Ward-Prowse’s third goal in as many games.

Tottenham only sparked into life after Southampton were reduced to 10 men. Harry Kane scored his 11th goal in as many games against Saints and he thought he had completed the turnaround only to be fractionally denied by VAR.

In all, Spurs had 22 attempts with three goals correctly chalked off but they lacked conviction as two points slipped away.

The vocal celebrations for Southampton fans at the final whistle told the story as they could reflect on four points from two games against Champions League contenders in the space of 48 hours.

When asked about his side’s failure to take advantage of their numerical advantage for the best part of an hour, Conte said: “For sure, it’s a missed opportunity and you have to try to exploit this situation to try to get three points.

“We knew very well to play Southampton at this stadium is not easy. At one point in the game, a draw would’ve been a positive for us but we felt the fatigue and our mind wasn’t very clear to do the best of the situations.”

Spurs could be starting to feel the pinch, and their elimination from the Europa Conference League after Uefa ruled they forfeited their final match against Rennes could yet prove a blessing in disguise.

Steven Bergwijn sustained a calf injury in the game against Crystal Palace, to go with Giovani Lo Celso missing out having done the same warming down having not featured on Boxing Day. It is an illustration of the high intensity Conte wants from his players at a time when games are unrelenting and muscular injuries are rife.

Conte knew he had to manage his players’ minutes, but with six more games coming up in January – three against Chelsea – he will need his entire squad available and firing to keep the momentum behind his transformative impact.

Ben Grounds

Crystal Palace turning Selhurst Park into a fortress

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Crystal Palace’s win over Norwich

There would have been a few nervous looks between Crystal Palace fans when Tuesday’s team news came out. They were already without talisman Wilfried Zaha to suspension, while manager Patrick Vieira was isolating due to Covid.

Then, Conor Gallagher was also left out of the matchday squad, although the reason remains unknown. Three of the keys to their success this season would not be in attendance with a 3-0 defeat at Tottenham fresh in the memory.

But perhaps their biggest tool this season has been Selhurst Park itself. It has always been a ground renowned for its atmosphere, with the Holmesdale End the epicentre.

And under Vieira, Crystal Palace have lost just once and scored 18 goals in their 10 Premier League home games this season (17 points), after losing five and scoring just nine times in the 10 before that (11 points).

But perhaps one of the most pleasing things about the victory against Norwich would have been completing it without their star players, particularly Zaha. Crystal Palace had won just three times in their previous 24 games without the forward. Now, they can notch that up to four.

Admittedly, Crystal Palace did not play their best game of the season, but did punish a sloppy Norwich with their three first-half shots on target. It was a game they would have expected to win and they saw out the game with discipline in the second half.

It sees Crystal Palace in the top half of the table going into 2022. They are just five points off Manchester United in seventh and, say it quietly, could they push for a Europa Conference League spot next season?

It would be some achievement if they did, but for now, there are plenty of positives to take heading into 2022.

Charlotte Marsh

Norwich’s squad decimated at the worst possible time

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Dean Smith says Norwich City’s 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace ‘hurts’ but stressed his squad has been ‘decimated’ during recent weeks, through injury and Covid

When he arrived at Norwich, Dean Smith said he was pleased with the shape of his squad as they faced an uphill battle to avoid Premier League relegation.

However, in the last few weeks, he has seen his side taken down to the bare bones with injuries and illness. On Monday alone, Todd Cantwell, Teemu Pukki and Max Aarons became unavailable. Dimitris Giannoulis came off at half-time with a knock, while captain Grant Hanley and No 1 goalkeeper Tim Krul also sidelined.

The list keeps on going and Smith was forced into six changes for the trip to Selhurst Park. No one in his matchday 18 had scored a Premier League goal this season and in December, they have lost five successive games without scoring a goal.

And yet, Norwich did test their opponents, particularly in the second half. But a string of errors in the first half sealed their fate and quite simply, they did not have the quality to find a way back into the game.

“What we had when I first came in, I was quietly optimistic, but it’s been decimated at the moment and that’s where we were today… We’re lacking a lot of leaders in our group who unfortunately at the moment are injured or ill,” Smith said after the game.

“I said to the players at half-time, you need to go out and show some character and pride in the second half. I didn’t think the first half was a 3-0 first half, it was just the manner of goals that were disappointing and unfortunately, the result is the only thing people will talk about.”

Their extensive list of absentees could not come at a worse time. Christmas is always the busiest time of the season – including two games in 48 hours, a schedule about which Smith has been a public critic of – and they find themselves three points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table, having played the most games of the teams around them.

With each passing game, it is looking a bigger and bigger task for Norwich to stay in the Premier League.

Charlotte Marsh